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The Living Seas: How Budget Cuts, Broken Promises and a Killer Dolphin Doomed an Epcot Classic

Under the Dome: Underwater edition

Image: Disney

Disney trivia alert! EPCOT Center opened exactly 11 years to the day after Magic Kingdom. The Future World portion that comprised the front half of the park focused on attractions that could simultaneously teach and entertain. The Living Seas Pavilion wasn’t one of the initial facilities. It wouldn’t debut for another five years, but the underlying structure was identical. That’s because Disney execs had known since the late 1970s that they’d build their own SeaWorld-esque pavilion. As always, the issues of designing and paying for it delayed the proceedings.

The influences for The Living Seas were myriad. Disney looked at its own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage for inspiration. They’d ported the attraction over from Disneyland to the Magic Kingdom in time for its 1971 debut, less than two weeks after the park itself opened to the public. Disney analysts believed that the fantastical elements of the Jules Verne story appealed to children. While park planners intended EPCOT Center to cater to adults, they understood that many guests would have kids to entertain. A fun version of their latest pavilion would make the day(s) spent at EPCOT Center feel less like school.

Since theming is everything at The Walt Disney Company, the intended pavilion was to embrace the heritage of aquatic mythology. Poseidon, ruler of the high seas, would greet guests at his underwater home. That visual would stand as the first thrill of The Living Seas. EPCOT Center visitors would see something akin to Atlantis. Imagineers drew illustrations for the entire showcase exhibit of the pavilion as an underwater domed city. Tubes would handle all the transportation in and out of the facility, and guests would enter and ride in giant water bubbles to reach the main area.

From a presentation perspective, everything about this concept is sublime. Humans are fascinated by domes, and Walt Disney had at least considered placing the entirety of E.P.C.O.T. in a dome during its planning phase. The presence of this stunning underwater city would have dazzled all observers, even the ones who were long since jaded by most theme park attractions.

Similarly, the Poseidon theme was a fantastic way to reinforce the underlying premise of The Living Seas while introducing a grandiose element right at the start. The thunderous voice of a Greek God would have grabbed everyone’s attention, making his informative speech of the importance of aquatic life unforgettable. It was the kind of showmanship and inventiveness that would have made Walt Disney proud.

The best laid plans…


Building the underwater domed city fell squarely under the header of “Absolutely impossible!”

Don’t get me wrong. Disney Imagineers tried. From the mid-1970s on, they knew that a water pavilion was going to comprise an integral portion of EPCOT Center. They crafted countless blueprints and illustrations of potential ways to bring the idea into reality. Unfortunately, working with water is one of the most difficult tasks on the planet. You may take indoor plumbing for granted, but it’s true.

The financial aspect is also problematic. Have you ever heard the story of Waterworld, the 1995 Kevin Costner movie? With a production expense of $172 million, it was the most expensive film ever made up until that time, but Universal Pictures hadn’t budgeted anywhere near that much for it. They expected a cost of $100 million. The rest stemmed from the production staff’s inability to maintain a steady supply of water on the set. Had they been familiar with the history of The Living Seas, they would have known about this issue in advance.

When Disney opened its seventh pavilion in 1986, they acknowledged that they’d spent $90 million bringing The Living Seas to life. That’s the equivalent of a little over $200 million today. It’s also a lot more than they’d expected when evaluating the project. This was a recurring theme with EPCOT Center. Disney had projected that the entire project would cost $600 million. Even after they lopped off several pavilions from the opening year, it still cost an estimated $1.4 billion, more than double expectations. Still, the financing for The Living Seas was unprecedented. An opening day article from the Orlando Sentinel described it as “the single most costly project ever built in a Disney theme park.”

On top of the shocking financial outlay, Disney had sacrificed virtually all of their grand ambitions for their SeaWorld-killer project. A domed underwater city was one of the first ideas to go. That’s a given since it’s a concept that’s difficult to achieve today, much less in the early 1980s. They also discarded the transparent water vehicles, instead settling on the Hydrolator and Seacab, the former of which was a renamed elevator while the latter was just a themed Omnimover that would introduce guests to the oceanic environment.

The boisterous introductory speech from Poseidon even fell by the wayside. Disney replaced it with a much more generic two-and-a-half minute video that felt like a PBS special rather than a booming Brian Blessed monologue. In three simple steps, they reduced The Living Seas from glorious celebration of mythic Atlantis with some SeaLab 2020 thrown in for good measure. Left in its wake was a pavilion that only parents could love while their kids wondered why they were doing this instead of riding Space Mountain.

The worst part is that like The Haunted Mansion before it, Disney had advertised the spectacular version of their underwater pavilion years before its arrival. They bragged of attractions such as The World of the Sea and Sea Base Alpha, the latter of which they declared would be a “futuristic undersea research station.” Disney is in the habit of under-promising and over-delivering because that’s good business. With The Living Seas, they were the opposite, and it led to shattered dreams from park guests and park planners alike.

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